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Gambit Weekly Highly Original

By Dalt Wonk

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  A federal investigator (Robert Montgomery) doesn't like what he hears from sex researcher Kelly Baranski (Michelle Moore) in Dr. Sex.

Suddenly, it seems, there is a bumper crop of original theater. A glance at the listings shows no less than 11 works by local playwrights, a challenge to even the most ardent theatergoer.

Seven of these shows were produced as part of the 15th annual Black Theater Festival at the Contemporary Art Center. Original work has always been the strong suit of the festival; half of its offerings this year were written locally. In addition to more traditional scripts, these included a wide variety of presentations like comedy skits by the Loose Cannons Troupe and free-form "theatricals" like the Chakula Cha Jua Company's dramatization of poems by Tom Dent and June Bug's potpourri of "Story-Telling for Adults."

Two of the traditional plays were one-acts by students from Dillard: Mirrors by Larry Platt and Djinn and Juice by T'shon Bryan.

Mirrors attempts to deal with complicated and tragic events faced by a New Orleans family. And while it provides some moments of insight and poignancy, it suffers from the very grandness of its ambitions.

Malik Johnson (T'shon Bryan), the only member of his family ever to graduate college, returns home. He meets his brother, Bishop (Jamal Sterling), who accompanied him to college and then dropped out. Bishop is intent on seeking justice for the deaths of their father and a third brother, who was murdered by a drug gang. The father, who had proof that crooked officers were involved in the drug trafficking, was "disappeared" by the cops.

Under Alex C. Marshall's direction, the cast brings a noteworthy honesty to this somewhat unfocused material, and some of the individual scenes (particularly those between the brothers) achieve an affecting naturalness.

Djinn and Juice is an odd, imaginative and often entertaining play. Evacuating their dorm because of an approaching killer hurricane, a few students (Gary Crump, LaToya Brown and Clifton Harvey) bid farewell to Chris (Leslie Elliard), a "loner" who has opted to remain.

Chris keeps to himself, it turns out, because he considers himself a "jinx." All his life, people close to him have died horrible deaths, a fate from which he has been miraculously saved. To exorcise this curse, Chris has decided to invoke the aid of a djinn -- a demonic African spirit. His friends, however, have arranged for a girl (Brandi Bradford) to stay with him in the hope that romance will prove a more potent cure than voodoo. And lurking somewhere on campus is the "Cupid Murderer," a serial killer who cuts out his victim's heart and wraps it in pink ribbons.

The dialogue is apt and amusing, and the cast, under the direction of Nina Domingue (herself a student), incarnates this comic nightmare with an easy charm.

Meanwhile, over at the University of New Orleans, Dr. Sex by Philip Zwerling received a polished production under the guidance of David Hoover.

Dr. Sex follows the struggles of Kelly Baranski (Michelle Moore), a colleague of pioneer sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey, as she tries to continue their research after her boss is laid low by a heart attack. The country is in the grips of McCarthy-era animosity toward "differentness" -- which is seen as "un-American" -- and Kelly must do battle with a hostile dean (Chris Lusk) and a heinous federal investigator (Robert M. Montgomery).

These scenes are skillfully crafted to carry the story forward, but the play comes most to life in an unrelated series of monologues in which "ordinary Americans" talk about sex. This contrast in dramatic vitality is especially evident when Kelly finally takes her place in the hot seat, as it were. For even there, she is restrained by the demands of the plot.

Dr. Sex is an earnest meditation on the individual and society. And the cast (which also included Veronica Oliver and Gary Rucker) was particularly and idiosyncratically satisfying in the monologues.

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